The Gophers softball team returns to Clearwater, Fla., this weekend for another tournament. It went 3-2 there in the Leadoff Classic last weekend as the highest ranked team in that field.
Since then, Minnesota has dropped from No. 8 in the USA Today/NFCA poll to No. 14. And the tournament the Gophers are in this weekend, the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational is much tougher.
The Gophers play No. 16 Oklahoma State (2-2) and No. 5 Florida State (5-0) at 10:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. Friday, respectively. Then they face unranked Virginia Tech (4-1) at 4 p.m. Saturday and No. 19 Missouri (5-0) at 8:30 a.m. Sunday.
Here are five observations from the Gophers’ first five games:
1. Amber Fiser has to be better. The NCAA’s active career leader in strikeouts with 704 matched her career-high of 13 stikeouts in one game twice last weekend and had 39 total in 23 innings. But she was not sharp at times in five appearances. She gave up 15 hits, and especially troubling were four extra base hits — a double, triple and two homers off her. She also walked 10, hit a batter and had seven wild pitches. ... That’s roughly a 4-1 strikeout to walk ratio. ... Last year? She had a 5-1 strikeout to walk ratio, gave up 10 homers all season and had only 23 wild pitches. Two freshmen catchers might partly explain the high number of wild pitches so far.
2. The team needs to find a clean-up hitter behind DenHartog. Sophomore Natalie DenHartog, the biggest threat to go deep in the current lineup, was pitched around too much. DenHartog, who had 17 homers last season, was hit by pitches four times and walked twice in five games. Even so, the team’s left fielder had a homer, double and five RBI. She was 6-for-14 for a team-high average of .429. Behind her Katelyn Kemmetmueller was 1-for-13. That doesn’t work even if Kemmetmueller did walk five times.
3. Two missing big bats can’t return soon enough. The Gophers scored 28 runs in their first five games, but eight of those runs came in one inning, five in another inning. The Gophers struggled to get runners home. They won their first game 1-0, and lost their fifth 7-0, stranding eight runners. Junior first baseman Hope Brandner (.354, 19 homers, 59 RBI last season) would sure look good in the lineup. She has an undisclosed injury. As would outfielder Ellee Jensen (.401, 40 runs two seasons ago). But she missed most of last season with leg injuries and still can’t play.
4. Emily Hansen shows promise. The sophomore from Buffalo replaced Brandner at first base and had six hits in 18 at-bats (.333), driving in seven runs. She had a two-run single in the seventh inning against Missouri, tying the game at 4-all. And then in the seventh inning against South Alabama, her two-run double gave the Gophers a 4-0 lead, breaking it open. She later had a two-run single in the same inning. As a freshman, she barely played. She had two singles in 16 at-bats and no RBI.
5. Pitcher Autumn Pease can help. The sophomore transfer from Idaho State appeared in four games, starting two of them. She gave up 12 hits in 13 innings, but also struck out 19. And most impressive of all, she walked none. The Gophers need a second or third pitcher, especially for tournaments when they are playing four, five games a weekend. Of some concern, then, is Kianna Jones’ brief outing. The freshman from Canada faced three batters in a 13-7 win over North Carolina State, giving up two hits and a walk. The Gophers had to bring Amber Fiser, who started the game, back in to put out the fire.